Posted on 18 Apr, 2013

The following interview was originally written for the Evening Standard, who I’m grateful to for still using Global Street Art pictures to support the final article when they weren’t able to publish this full interview (check out the ES slideshow). This article coincides with the opening of Stik’s solo exhibition at the Imitate Modern Gallery in Belgravia from April 19th (see www.stik.org.uk for more info). 

Stik is one of London’s most popular street artists. His distinctive black and white stickmen have appeared and disappeared in Central and East London over the past ten years. Over the past two years he has been increasingly courted by galleries eager to sell his canvases. Owner’s of Stik’s art include Brian May, Tinie Tempah, Goldie, Chris Martin, Ed Sheeran and Bono.

“My work has a broad appeal because it’s very friendly” says Stik. However, despite the obvious commercial appeal of Stik’s work his focus is far from cashing in on his growing popularity. Instead he is much more focused on work that supports the community, like the recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas with Tony Benn. This is more remarkable when you learn that Stik was living in a homeless shelter 18 months ago.

Check out the Stik slideshow below:

Stik is 30ish (he won’t be more specific), with a slim build and short hair; his jumper is torn in two places. When people ask to take pictures with him Stik is accommodating but puts cheap over-sized sunglasses over his own glasses to mute his identity. Stik is extroverted when he talks about the present and his future but becomes introverted when talking about his identity and his past.

I ask Stik for his real name but he won’t tell me.  “My name is Stik. I don’t give out my name because I’m a graffiti artist. I still paint illegally.” But it’s more than that. Stik’s past has been difficult. Some ten years ago Stik became homeless. He won’t talk about how he became homeless but it’s clearly an unhappy story spanning a number of years.

Stik found it hard to hold down a stable home. He describes it like being stuck in a trap. “Art totally took me out of me out of homelessness. It kept me focused and on the right track.”

Stik with Tony Benn

When he moved between homes the only thing Stik would take with him was a huge box of hundreds of sketchpads. “Well, I’ve always drawn stickmen and on walls. That goes right back. When I became homeless I was really out of the system. There was no thought of being in galleries at all; art was just my way of communicating.”

Stik started painting larger pieces around East London using white emulsion that people would leave on the streets once they were finished redecorating. When Stik painted outside people would stop him in the street and ask him to paint the outside of their houses, which he did. Stik says if you can see the wall from the street he’ll still paint it for free.

“I don’t have a formal education. I learned from other graffiti and street artists like Doze, Zomby, Run and Roa. Street artists learn a lot from each other. There’s a mutual understanding between street artists who risk getting their work out there.”

Stik says he’s also learned from fine artists like Giacometti and Anthony Gormley. “I always visited art galleries” he says. During a difficult period eight years ago Stik met Anthony Gormley in White Cube and gave him a book of his drawings. Stik had made a collection of some 50 drawings, photocopied them in a corner shop and stapled them into booklets. Gormley thanked him and said he also worked with lines, which meant a lot to Stik.

I ask Stik how many stickmen he’s drawn. “Millions” he says “But they’re not just stickmen, they’re people. People became stickmen. They’re shorthand for emotions. They reflect how I feel. The curve of the back, how tucked in the chest is, if the arse is sticking out, whether they are knock-kneed. There’s a lot in the bend of a knee or the shrug of a shoulder.” Stik gets lost for a moment doodling on my pad.

At one point Stik found a job cleaning the toilets at The Foundry, a pub and arts venue that was the centre of East London’s alternative arts scene for a decade. Banksy had artworks at The Foundry and it also became the site for Stik’s first solo show.

In winter 2009, after a period of homelessness, Stik went to a drop in centre who found him a place at St Mungo’s in Hackney (there is still one of his paintings in their back yard). Stik saw his time in the hostel as sink or swim. He was in the hostel for just over a year, which he says was his most productive time. “A lot changed when I moved into the hostel. It was a good space. I painted a lot of work in the streets.”

Inspired by his past, Stik started linking his art to local news stories and social issues, often depicting those who slip through the cracks. He was commissioned by the NHS to produce a series of murals around Hackney to depict the effects of various drugs (ketamine, LSD, ecstasy - see the photo below) for an addiction education website.

In 2010 Stik painted a large mural illegally in Glastonbury town centre. After the council removed the piece the local newspaper ran a campaign where residents asked Stik to come back and repaint the mural, which he did. The local people now look after the mural, removing any tags.

In 2011 when Stik moved out of the hostel into more stable accommodation in Hackney he was offered four solo shows: at the Subway Gallery (on the Edgware Road), with the Lava Collective in Covent Garden, at KOP in Bristol and at Graffik Gallery in West London. All four shows sold out.

Stik is now in a much better position and he’s choosing to follow his social aims. In the summer of 2011 Stik was invited to Gdansk, Poland, funded by the British Council to paint a large-scale street piece as part of the Brit Cult Festival alongside Gilbert and George at the Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art. That Christmas his posters were sold at a fundraiser for St Mungo’s.

Having just moved out of the hostel Stik gave a talk on street art at the Hackney Wicked Festival. Stik was approached by a patron of the Dulwich Picture Gallery on behalf of the Dulwich Festival, who invited him to learn about their collection and rework some of their pieces as street art. Stik is now being coached about the masters, the stories and histories behind the paintings.Stik will be producing a series of 6 large murals in Dulwich based on the gallery’s permanent collection, which includes works by Rubens and Gainsborough, blurring the line between street and gallery art. There will be an official tour of the murals at the Dulwich Festival in May. For Stik this exhibition has significance in being accepted by the art establishment.

This year Stik installed an unauthorized artwork on the outside wall of a Hackney charity. The charity found the satellite dish and sold the work to a private collector through the Lamberty Art Dealership in Pimlico for £5,800. Stik later learned that the money raised from the sale went to support a series of youth street art projects in Hackney, which he was very happy about.

Still feels very good about his success “Its opening up lots of opportunities for me. This is a new chapter in my life.” Clearly, a lot has changed very quickly and Stik is reassessing his life. People often take pictures when Stik steps outside of his studio on Pitfield Street, a regular stop on street art tours.

Most recently Stik has been invited to LA and offered solo shows in Paris and Montreal.  You can catch Stik’s latest solo exhibition at the Imitate Modern Gallery in Belgravia from April 19th. For more information see www.stik.org.uk and www.imitatemodern.com.

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